How can a good God allow suffering? Wrong question.

Tim Keller’s book, Making Sense of God: Finding God in a Modern World, is something of a follow-up to his earlier book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism, although as Keller says, it should be seen more as a prequel, since ‘[The Reason for God] does not begin far enough back for many people’ (4). Where the earlier book took a fairly standard Reformed and evangelical (even ‘presuppositional’, if you like that term) approach to answering some of the popular objections to Christianity, this more recent book offers more of a challenge to secularism, examining and critiquing some of its efforts to make meaning of the world.

Depending on your tradition, you might have different appraisals of Keller’s ministry. But there can be no doubt that his writing, particularly on engaging with non-Christians, is immensely helpful in understanding sceptics and how they think about Christianity,  because it is borne a great deal of first-hand experience and reflection on the actual practice of ministry in a profoundly secular community.

One of the more interesting things that emerges in this later book is the way Keller takes some of the standard objections to Christianity apart to demonstrate that often these objections begin by asking the wrong questions. A good example of this is the problem of evil, or the question of how a good God can allow suffering. Drawing on the work of Michael Polanyi and Charles Taylor, Keller argues that we have significant background beliefs that shape our perception of the world and the questions we ask, and that we are barely aware, if at all, of these preunderstandings. In this instance, the modern mind operates with a profound trust in autonomous rationality, and thus assumes that the problem of evil, and God’s relationship to it, is something that can be perfectly comprehended. If not, the only conclusion can be that there is no God.

Keller observes that this deep trust in our rational faculties is as significant of a faith commitment as anything else, and that ‘the problem of evil is a good case study of how background beliefs control our supposedly strictly rational thought’. He continues by highlighting the difference between ancient and distinctly modern approaches to the question:

The book of Job, for example, presents the outrageousness of undeserved suffering as well as any ancient text, yet in no way does it present it as an objection to the existence of God. Ancient people were arguably much more acquainted with brutality, loss, and evil than we are. Their literature…is filled with laments about inexplicable suffering. Yet there is virtually no ancient thinker who reasoned from such evil that, therefore, there couldn’t be a God. Why does this argument against God’s existence seem so rational and convincing today?

Charles Taylor explains why modern people are far more likely to lose their faith over suffering than those in times past. He says it is because, culturally, our belief and confidence in the powers of our own intellect have changed. Ancient people did not assume that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgement on how an infinite God was disposing of things. It is only in modern times that we get “the certainty that we have all the elements we need to carry out a trial of God.” Only when this background belief in the sufficiency of our own reason shifted did the presence of evil in the world seem to be an argument against the existence of God.

There is, then, a significant backdrop of faith behind modern arguments against God on the basis of evil. it is assumed, not proven, that a God beyond our reason could not exist – and therefore we conclude that he doesn’t exist. This is, of course, a form of begging the question. Our background beliefs set up our conscious reasoning to fail to find sufficient evidence for God (36-37).

Though Keller only briefly mentions Taylor here, it is clear that his perspective is shaped in significant ways by Taylor’s disenchantment thesis. That, I think, is important when we consider the future of the apologetic task. Recognising the deepening influence of secularism, Keller has made efforts to take a step back in order to meet people where they are as he engages with them. Drawing deeply on the work of thinkers who have devoted themselves to making sense of our changing context, he is able to understand the shifts that are taking place and pitch his message more appropriately. And in part, as seen above, that means being attentive to the deeper frameworks in play, and how they shape the (wrong) questions and objections people to have to Christianity.

Given that we have resources like the work of Taylor to help us come to grips with the ongoing shifts in Western culture, I wonder if it is time to question more traditional methods of apologetics, and particularly, being willing to answer the questions and objections put to us just as they are. Perhaps it is the case that too often we have rushed to answer these questions (how many talks, leaflets, and books are generated by the Christian publishing machine attempting to definitively answer the question of the problem of evil?), and in doing so, have unwittingly validated the background beliefs of the modern world, when what was really needed was for us to say, ‘Actually, you’re asking the wrong question’.

In this changing context, it seems to me that Keller’s approach is wise: simply to begin by trying to bring people to an awareness of their preunderstandings, and how this shapes the questions they have. Until we do that, answering their objections is likely to prove increasingly fruitless.

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